By Suzanne Rice wife of COL Bill Rice, 1986, Kitzingen, Germany
The Challenger Remembered – 1986
By 1986, we had lived in a tiny German town near Kitzingen, Germany for nearly four years. Bill liked to say that when we got to Germany, he knew the most German having spent three years there from 1970-73. Since he rarely spent any time with German military personnel, he could say what many bachelors knew: “Zwei bier, bitte” (Two beers, please.) and “Wo ist der Bahnhof?”(Where is the train station?) In his second tour of Germany, he rarely used a word of German, either, while participating in many training exercises with only American forces. The family, instead, living in a small German village, was exposed to the German language daily. The girls were in German Kindergarden (age three through five) and Volksschule (first grade through fifth grade) using German each day with their teachers and classmates. In those four years, our daughters soon surpassed their Dad in German language skills (At aged six and nine, they never did order two beers nor ask about the bahnhof.) We were always grateful for their new language skills; in a pinch, we had some good translators in the family. In the four years from 1982-86, we had become dear friends, almost like family, with our German neighbors in Schwarzenau. We were adopted and have been back many times to visit our German “family” there!
In January 1986, we were shocked to hear about the Challenger disaster. On his way home from his duty day, Bill was stunned to hear on Armed Forces Network (AFN) on the car radio the news alert of the initial report of the disaster. He ran into the house and told us to turn on the radio. Later, we thought of checking our television which had only German television stations. Though we could not always keep up with the German commentary, it was obvious by just watching the video what had happened. We were all saddened by the photos we saw. There had been so much anticipation about the teacher in space. People in the US had been curious about what amazing things our astronauts would learn and many schools were anxious to see what the teacher in space would teach their students. It was a great blow to the nation. It turned out that our national sadness was shared by many throughout the world, not the least of which were our German friends and neighbors. Our family became the face of the U.S.A and many wanted to express their condolences to us for our country. They were all very kind in their concerns about our national tragedy.
Several months later, our 75 year old next door neighbor stopped at our house. He didn’t speak English, so the girls came to our rescue, interpreting for him. He asked if we had any pictures of the Challenger astronauts and, if we didn’t, could we find some for him – maybe, in a memorial book? The only place we had to look for American books was at the small Post Exchange (PX) at the nearest U. S. Army base a few miles away. I was not confident that there would be such a book published yet (no internet, then), but I told our neighbor that I would go to the PX and look around. I was delighted to find such a book there. When I took the book over to his house, I learned for the first time that he was a very talented artist. So, what did our old friend want with the photos of the astronauts?
Annually, towns around the Bavarian region of Franconia host hikes that take participants around the town and out into the woods, vineyards or farmland. These are not competitive walks, but rather more leisurely strolls and those joining in receive a souvenir of completion, sometimes, a commemorative plate, sometimes, a medal or beer mug. Participants can choose to walk for 5 or 10 kilometers to complete the adventure. The route is set up so that you can take as much time as you like to complete the walk since there is often an opportunity somewhere along the way to stop and enjoy the scenery with a glass of beer or another treat. People of all ages participate and many young families spend the day walking and pushing stollers through the course with little ones scampering along behind. This walk is called a Volksmarch or a Wandertag (day hike). Soon after the Challenger disaster, the
Kitzingen Volksmarch planning committee came to our neighbor to see if he would make a prototype sketch for the medal to be given out to those who would participate in their Wandertag. Normally, the medal or commemorative plate would bear the image of some special sight in the area such as the landmark, Falterturm (leaning tower) of Kitzingen. However, for the Volksmarch of 1986, they chose a different theme: they wanted to commemorate the Challenger astronauts and our neighbor was the man to whom they turned for the images that would be embossed on the medal.
Our family was quite touched with the kind sentiment that the committee showed by creating that special medal. Our neighbor made a beautiful sketch that became the Kitzingen Wandertag medal that many still treasure today. It was a lovely tribute to our American astronauts and a nice partnership between German and American neighbors.